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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Clark, John (1885–1956)

by Murray S. Upton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

John Clark (1885-1956), entomologist, was born on 21 March 1885 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of James Souttar Clark, coach-painter, and his wife Maggie, née Scott. With little formal education, John came to Australia in 1905 and found a job with the State railways at Chillagoe, Queensland. His work enabled him to indulge in what was to become an enduring interest in ants and he collected his first specimens in North Queensland. 

On 21 May 1908 Clark married Maggie Forbes at the Presbyterian manse, Cairns. They moved to Geraldton, Western Australia, where he was again employed by the railways, for some time as a wheelwright. His enthusiasm for natural history came to the attention of L. J. W. Newman, the entomologist with the Department of Agriculture, who took him on probation as an assistant to the entomologist on 24 February 1919. When Clark's position was confirmed on 1 October 1920, he shifted with his wife, son and two daughters to Perth, where another daughter was born. His first papers, including notes on the history of entomology in Western Australia, were published in 1921. Three years later he was promoted to assistant-entomologist.

At the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science's congress in Perth in 1926, some visiting scientists suggested that Clark should apply for the vacant position of entomologist at the National Museum of Victoria. He was appointed to the museum on 18 November 1926 and began his duties on 24 January 1927. Finding 'museum work in Melbourne not to his liking', in 1929 he unsuccessfully applied for the post of economic entomologist in the mandated Territory of New Guinea. In March 1933 he sold his collection of ants, comprising eight thousand specimens, to the museum for £200.

Maggie died of heart disease on 5 October 1935. Clark subsequently moved from Hawthorn to Fern Tree Gully. On 1 May 1939 he married Phyllis Marjorie Claringbull at the office of the government statist, Melbourne. She bore him two daughters, but committed suicide on 26 September 1943, three months after the second daughter's birth. Unable to look after these children, Clark sent them to an orphanage.

Although generous, friendly and helpful to amateurs, Clark was intemperate in the extreme to his peers and superiors, whom he treated with contempt. This attitude, together with his lack of academic qualifications, bedevilled his career. He frequently applied for reclassification, to no avail. When R. T. M. Pescott was appointed director of the museum in August 1944, Clark immediately resigned. Having lost all his entitlements, he lived in poverty at Mooroolbark.

During his career Clark published thirty-five entomological papers. In view of his worldwide reputation as an authority on Australian ants, the division of entomology of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research arranged in 1947 for him to undertake a comprehensive revision of the group. The first volume, published in 1951, received poor reviews and no further volumes were forthcoming. Survived by six children, he died, intestate, on 1 June 1956 at his Mooroolbark home and was buried in Burwood cemetery. His collection of ants went to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra.

Clark's second daughter Ellen was also a noted naturalist. Having worked with her father at the museum, in 1940 she became secretary of the virus department of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and naturalist for the Argus and Australasian. She published papers on influenza virus research—with (Sir) Macfarlane Burnet—and on crustacea, her special interest.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Musgrave, Bibliography of Australian Entomology 1775-1930 (Syd, 1932)
  • H. J. Carter, Gulliver in the Bush (Syd, 1933)
  • R. T. M. Pescott, Collections of a Century (Melb, 1954)
  • Department of Agriculture (Western Australia), Annual Report, 1919
  • Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 22nd Annual Report, 1948
  • Entomological News, 67, no 8, 1956
  • Australian Journal of Science, 19, 1956-57
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 2 June 1956.

Citation details

Murray S. Upton, 'Clark, John (1885–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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